When it was built in the 1950s, downtown Toronto’s Regent Park represented the latest thinking about how the city should house low-income families: its airy, self-contained layout was the antithesis of teeming slums such as Cabbagetown. But like so many modernist public housing projects, Regent Park fostered as many problems as it solved, and came to be a political symbol of misguided social policy.
Last year, the city’s public housing company approved a $423-million plan to revitalize Regent Park and integrate it into the surrounding neighbourhoods. But Norman Rowen (MEd 1977), the energetic idealist behind the Regent Park “Pathways to Education Program,” has spent the last three years concentrating on the people who live in those rundown apartments. Pathways now serves as an extraordinary example of how a joint venture among the city’s universities, the school board and a community outreach program can change the lives of vulnerable kids.
The average annual income in Regent Park is $18,000. There are a great many visible minorities, new Canadians and single-parent families struggling to get by in a high-crime housing project. Families and social workers in the community had long recognized a strange disconnect in the school system. Almost all children attended the local public school, which provided them with a welcoming and inclusive educational experience. But after Grade 8, Rowen says, Regent Park kids travelled far outside their community, and the sense of enforced isolation helped create a dropout rate twice the city average.
Rowen’s solution takes many forms. Pathways promotes what he calls “a culture of achievement” by connecting the neighbourhood’s high school students with adult mentors and tutors, many of whom are enrolled at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto and at York University. The tutors volunteer once a week, the mentors once every two weeks. The tutoring is compulsory; career counselling for older teens is also available. “There’s a need to be present in these kids’ lives over the long term,” says Rowen. The program also aggressively raises funds from the private sector – to provide both the volunteers and participants with transit fares and bursaries for the graduating students who enrol at a college or university.
The Pathways results, Rowen says, have been “startling.” The enrolment rate in the program among Regent Park’s students is a staggering 97 per cent. Since the program began three years ago, their school absenteeism has plummeted, and they have achieved a steady increase in the accumulation of credits needed for graduation. A recent survey of Grade 10 students shows that the Pathways pupils now finish at least as many courses as their peers at the three downtown Toronto high schools that serve the majority of Regent Park kids. The conclusion: the Pathways program clearly helps kids to complete high school.
The benefits to these children, as well as society at large, are enormous, Rowen explains. Kids who finish high school are more likely to be employed, earn more money, and enjoy better long-term health than those who don’t. Rowen’s clincher, however, is that kids who complete high school are less likely to end up in jail. In fact, only 20 per cent of male federal prison inmates have a high school diploma.